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People still remember the night Benoît Bouchard joined the legendary Quebec chanteur Jean Lapointe (now Senator Lapointe) on the stage of the Ottawa Civic Centre to demonstrate a close-to-professional soft-shoe routine while singing the Lapointe signature tune, Chante de ta chanson, la chanson de mon coeur. The event gave new dimension to Mr. Bouchard, the little guy from Lac St. Jean, who was often the nationalist conscience of the Mulroney government.

That was eight years ago, at former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's goodbye party. Although Mr. Bouchard was also leaving electoral politics, he was a long way from leaving the national stage.

Yesterday, after two more careers -- first as diplomat and then as the chairman of the Canadian Transportation Accident Investigation and Safety Board -- Mr. Bouchard finally headed back to blueberry country in the Saguenay, profoundly transformed by 17 years of public life.

When he first arrived in Ottawa from one of the most sovereigntist parts of Quebec, he was "probably not the most convinced Canadian" as he admitted yesterday. He'd campaigned for sovereignty association and voted Yes in the 1980 referendum.

Now, full of admiration for Canada's diversity, he says Canada will only survive if "Canadians are able to go beyond the question of regionalism."

He's convinced the notion of Quebec independence has become increasingly obsolete, and that Quebec should work with other provinces to counterbalance the federal government. He believes that Canada's big challenge isn't Quebec separatism but resisting the pull of the United States.

Over the years, Mr. Bouchard was often overshadowed by his mercurial namesake, Lucien. Both came from the same region, and shared its sovereigntist sympathies; both were ministers in the Mulroney cabinet and played major roles around the attempt to modify the Constitution to better accommodate Quebec. But the two split dramatically.

Lucien remained the purist, while Benoît worked within cabinet during the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional process to fashion a compromise that he believed his fellow Quebeckers could live with. "To refuse the compromise is to refuse the country," he said back then. (Lucien may now agree.)

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made an inspired choice when he sent the federalist convert to Paris as Canadian ambassador in the tough days leading up to the 1995 Quebec referendum. Our ambassador gave then-premier Jacques Parizeau and his Parisien sympathizers no quarter. He played the effective Canadian counterfoil in France, especially when Mr. Parizeau came seeking a French agreement to recognize Quebec's independence.

Nor did Benoît Bouchard hide his scepticism about Parizeau allies, such as Philippe Seguin, then president of the French National Assembly, whom he dismissed as a "loose cannon." He argued it was not in the French government's interests to make mischief. And he was proven right. Mr. Seguin is now in political obscurity, while the government of French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has made it clear it wants good relations with a united Canada.

More recently, Benoît Bouchard has earned praise here and abroad for the way his agency has handled the $50-million investigation into the crash of Swissair Flight 111 near Halifax. Put all this together with his unquestioned moral authority, and his successes in seven cabinet portfolios. It adds up to an impressive legacy. We owe him a big thank you.